What the golden age can teach us about interior design

Morgan Spector as George Russell.

Photographer: Alison Cohen Pink

In fact, Wharton left Newport in 1899 when the view from her elegant octagonal conservatory was marred by the construction of a home by a designer who clearly had not yet internalized her design principles. And yet the “new” thing that Wharton loathed was the oppressive Victoriana of the time, and we think she would rather have admired the Russells/Vanderbilts. (Although Consuelo Vanderbilt, daughter of Alva and William – who could therefore be Gladys Russell in Fellowes’ series – disliked Wharton. She wrote about meeting her The glitter and the gold and complained that Wharton was forensically examining her. Which of course she was.) Anyway, there’s a good game of Edith Wharton bingo to play while you watch The Gilded Ageaccording to the following rules.

Only settle for the best…

Use and buy the best you can afford—and if you can afford it, it’s your civic duty: “If a rich man demands good architecture, his neighbors will get it too. . . Every good moulding,” writes Wharton, “every carefully considered detail demanded of those who can afford to indulge their tastes will, in time, find its way into the carpenter-built cottage.” The Russells have each other evidently adhered to. These society ladies really should have used their ballroom for this carnival.

…but be modest on the outside

And yet . . “Especially in bourgeois houses, any outward wealth should be avoided; The use of ornate lace-patterned curtains appears not only to obstruct the view, but also to be an attempt to project the luxury of the interior onto the street.” We don’t know what Wharton thought of the magnificent facades of these Newport cottages. Perhaps this rule did not apply to the sea, or only to curtains? However, these days billionaires are having their homes removed from Google Street View, which could be seen as the modern day equivalent.

Originality is key

“Most people find it easier to set up a space like the others than to analyze and articulate their own needs. Men are less demanding than women in these matters because their requirements, apart from being simpler, are uncomplicated by the feminine tendency to want things because other people have them, rather than having things because they are wanted.” In other words, stop striving for what others have. If the Russells could employ Stanford White—who, if we look at reality again, hadn’t designed any major buildings in New York at the time, only a Methodist church in Baltimore—then we too could march to our own tone and fix our homes according to our living wishes, and “the more closely we adhere to this rule, the easier it is to set up our rooms and the more pleasant it is to live in.”

Some rules cannot be broken

However, there are universal stipulations, which Wharton says include avoiding unnecessary window displays and ensuring privacy by closing doors (no open plan for them; also, doors should swing into a room and screen off the portion of the room where occupants normally sit ) and making sure the tables aren’t “so cluttered with knick knacks” that there’s no room for books. She notes that in some homes the drawing room “is still held sacred to gilding and discomfort,” and laments the modern upholsterer who “upholsters and puffs out his seats as if they would form the furniture of a madman’s cell.” She also detested extendable dining tables.


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